A dispatch from the culture war

Gay Arkansans protest Gov. Mike Huckabee's hetero-only "Celebration of Marriage."

Topics: Gay Marriage,

Holding on to her husband’s arm, a middle-aged woman in a white wedding veil and sparkly makeup beamed as she walked past a cluster of protesters outside the Alltel Arena in Little Rock, Ark. The couple joined thousands of others, all streaming into the stadium for a Valentine’s Day “Celebration of Marriage” hosted by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet. Those who weren’t welcome at the governor’s celebration — gay couples like Robert Loyd and John Schenck, together for 30 years and recently wed in Toronto — took the event as a personal rebuke. After all, just a few months ago, Arkansas voted overwhelmingly to ban both gay marriage and domestic partnerships — all in the name of preserving the institution of marriage.

“I can’t marry my Valentine,” said one sign. “Get a new Valentine,” one woman, a celebrant, shouted as she walked in.

The Huckabees had invited every God-fearing heterosexual in the state to watch them upgrade their union into a “covenant marriage,” a type of marriage that’s very difficult to get out of. Covenant marriages are one of the right’s attempts to shore up traditional matrimony, something that appears especially embattled in Bible Belt states like Arkansas, where divorce rates are soaring.

The sad state of marriage in Arkansas, which has America’s third-highest divorce rate, led Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, to declare a “marital emergency” in 2000 and pledge to halve the number of divorces in a decade. As part of that effort, he pushed for the state’s covenant marriage law, which essentially forecloses the option of no-fault divorce for participating couples. “Only when there has been a complete and total breach of the marital covenant commitment may a party seek a declaration that the marriage is no longer legally recognized,” the 2001 law says. Such a breach can include physical abuse, imprisonment or “habitual drunkenness for one year.”

People aren’t exactly flocking to covenant marriages. Two other states, Louisiana and Arizona, also have such laws, but only a tiny percentage of couples are participating. Huckabee hopes to change that. Before his Valentine’s Day rally, the governor toured the state with the co-host of the event, Dennis Rainey, head of the Arkansas-based ministry FamilyLife, a division of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Together, they encouraged pastors to refuse to perform noncovenant marriages in their churches. The churches, in turn, organized fleets of buses to take their congregants to Alltel for a kind of religious revival as scripted by Hallmark.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of the marriage movement. In their zeal to “protect” marriage from gay people and divorce, religious right activists have fetishized it, promoting it as a source of boundless bliss that would make the authors of bodice-rippers blush even as they bemoan a society where people are too easily swayed by marriage’s disappointments. “On the one hand they have this romanticized view of marriage, true love and putting the partner above everything, but another theme in this whole marriage movement is that you shouldn’t expect so much from marriage, you should suck it up, stay together for the sake of the kids and recognize that marriage is a moral duty,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of the forthcoming “Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.”

“Your eyes must light up when your spouse enters the room,” proclaimed Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who, in a gesture toward ecumenicism, was invited to give the opening speech at Huckabee’s event. A close ally of the religious right, Lapin is a gray-bearded man with a British accent who seems to be striving to become the real-life Rabbi Bengelsdorf from Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” Lapin said that marriage is needed to turn the “raw rock of male sexuality and aggression” into a beautiful work of art.

The highlight of the night was the Huckabees’ conversion of their marriage and restatement of their vows, including Janet’s pledge to “submit” to Mike. When they were done, they invited the audience to repeat their promises. Thousands of wives stood up and vowed to submit to thousands of husbands, and then thousands of people kissed and cheered.

There was only one interruption. During Huckabee’s speech, a group of young activists unfurled banners saying “Queer Rights Now.” As security guards moved in to hustle them out, two young men embraced. They stayed put as the rest of their group moved into the aisles, looking a little scared as they clung to each other as people jeered them and called for their arrest.

It was the most romantic thing I saw all night.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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